France and the United States worsen the security situation in West Africa – foreign policy

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The Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert stretching from Senegal to Eritrea, is going through a major security crisis. Since 2016, terrorist attacks have increased quintuple in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In February, the United Nations refugee agency said 4,000 people in Burkina Faso were displaced every day due to political violence. This escalating trajectory of violence has continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the August 18 coup that ousted Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power threatens to further destabilize an already fragile region.

As the security situation in the Sahel continues to deteriorate, the causes of the escalation of violence are regularly debated, but no one is taking appropriate measures to address it.

US Department of State highlighted the role of transnational terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State, in triggering the security crisis in the Sahel. Reports from development agencies and think tanks routinely highlight fragile state institutions, authoritarianism and climate change as factors that cause instability. Yet policymakers are reluctant to devote resources to counterterrorism efforts or development initiatives.

Despite these intense debates, a key contributor to insecurity in the Sahel is often overlooked: the crisis in international governance. Instead of taking constructive steps to address the range of challenges facing the Sahel, major powers and regional institutions are exacerbating the region’s problems.

Due to their intense focus on geostrategic competition and their willingness to equate authoritarianism with stability, great powers such as France, the United States, Russia and China have in fact perpetuated conditions, such as as corruption and fragile state institutions, which contribute to the rise of political violence. in the Sahel. Regional institutions such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have exacerbated the governance crisis due to a lack of strategic coordination and their inefficient use of military resources.

While competition from the great powers in the Sahel has intensified in recent years, France remains the region’s main security provider. In January 2013, France responded to an official request for assistance from the Malian government in launching Operation Serval – an anti-terrorist intervention that halted the advance of Islamic extremist militants from the north to central Mali. In August 2014, France and the G-5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) embarked on a region-wide counterterrorism campaign called Operation Barkhane.

A French strike on June 3 of this year kill Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. France also has cooperated militarily with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. This mission deploys up to 13,289 soldiers and 1,920 police in the Sahel and monitors human rights violations perpetrated by armed groups in the region.

Despite these military successes, The French approach to the fight against terrorism in the Sahel has also exacerbated the security crisis in the region. Although French military operations rely on American intelligence and logistic support out of some 800 American soldiers deployed in Niger, France’s preference for unilateralism in West Africa has limited its ability to work with Washington on the development of a regional security strategy. In 2017, France initiated a UN motion calling for the deployment of a 5,000-strong African security force in the Sahel, but which criticized US officials for apparently not consulting them on its plans.

The harmful consequences of French unilateralism have emerged in recent months. The expansion of political violence in the Sahel, despite the increase of the French military presence of 4,500 to 5,100 men in February, underlines France’s inability to resolve the security crisis in the Sahel on its own and increases the risk of French military overextension in West Africa.

The French military contingent of 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel is scattered across Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, and the French army has also stationed 1,000 troops in Côte d’Ivoire to help its fight against the Islamic extremism, In addition, France’s strong support for authoritarian rulers in the region, like Chadian President Idriss Déby, mistakenly confuses autocracy with stability and plants the seeds of discontent that fosters extremism in the region.

The hesitant US commitment to stabilize the Sahel has exacerbated France’s overextension and reduced the international community’s ability to counter extremism in West Africa. Despite bipartisan opposition and strong objections from French Defense Minister Florence Parly, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper strongly alludes on January 27 during a withdrawal of American counterterrorism forces in the Sahel region.

In April, the Pentagon reduced access to medical evacuation flights for US troops fighting in West Africa. U.S. officials also have a skeptical view of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, even though it served as partial control on political violence in the central regions of the country. This dismissive attitude has placed the administration of US President Donald Trump on a collision course with France at a time when increased cooperation is essential.

While France’s unilateralism and US disengagement have been the main contributors to the crisis in security governance in the Sahel, Russia and China’s approaches to regional security have also exacerbated this problem. Permissive Russia approach arms contracts in West Africa reinforces France’s efforts to make autocracy the antidote to extremism. Russia’s military cooperation agreements with Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mali do not take into account the human rights situation in that country, and Moscow has supported Guinean President Alpha Condé despite the repression of peaceful demonstrators.

Russian military cooperation in June 2019 accord with Mali could have resulted formation Malian activists involved in the August 18 coup, but there are also reports that the US government trained the coup plotters in Mali. As for Beijing, despite its desire to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to the Sahel, China has only proposed rhetorical solidarity with the counterterrorism objectives of the G-5 bloc.

Even though the inability of the great powers to develop a coordinated security strategy in the Sahel has inspired calls to “solve African problems the African way”, regional institutions have failed to rise to the challenge. On February 27, the African Union announced an engagement deploy 3,000 troops to the Sahel, but South Africa’s Ambassador to the AU, Edward Xolisa Makaya, later said that no country had offered to volunteer troops and that did not know how this African Union operation would be funded.

Many observers have critical the African Union for not having deployed the African Standby Force in the Sahel, like some of its member states prefer ad hoc rather than longer term deployments. (The force, specializing in peacekeeping operations, was declared operational in 2016 and its presence could centralize the security initiatives in the Sahel advanced by the African Union in recent years.)

The ECOWAS response to the security crisis in the Sahel has also been marred by strategic inconsistency. Instead of devising a coherent vision to fight insurgencies in the Sahel, ECOWAS has outsourced their security responsibilities to initiatives such as the G-5 bloc and the Multinational Joint Task Force, which seeks to stabilize the Lake Chad region.

Due to its abdication of responsibility, ECOWAS gage Spending $ 1 billion on security in the Sahel from 2020 to 2024 has been uncommon and has left individual counterterrorism initiatives strapped for funds. The failure of ECOWAS to alleviate the current political crisis in Mali has further undermined its credibility as a provider of security in the Sahel. After the leaders of ECOWAS summoned for negotiations in Bamako on July 23, Mahmoud Dicko, the leader of the Malian opposition movement on June 5, said no progress had been made in the talks. The threat of ECOWAS impose sanctions on Malian political factions disrupting a peace settlement also did not deter the coup.

While a comprehensive resolution to the security governance crisis in the Sahel is unlikely to happen soon, leaders can take constructive action immediately. The United States and France should emphasize cooperation between the great powers; Washington should stop its efforts to undermine the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali; and the United States should help materially France’s efforts to defeat Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Al-Qaeda partner in Mali, instead of simply seeking to contain its growth.

As the United States and China are both concerned about transnational terrorism originating in the Sahel, they can take advantage of the Malian crisis as a rare opportunity to find common ground. France must refrain from unreservedly supporting authoritarian regimes in the Sahel, to encourage its European partners to bring counterterrorism forces to the region and address security in West Africa in its strategic dialogue with Russia.

In order to reduce fears of neocolonialism in the Sahel and to avoid the backlash that resulted from the unilateral US counterterrorism operations in Somalia, major power consultations must be combined with regional engagement. International financial assistance can enhance the effectiveness of the G-5 bloc and other initiatives that have supplanted ECOWAS, while permanent member states of the UN Security Council could support regional efforts to mediate regional crises .

The great powers should also support initiatives like that of Morocco mediation during the Malian crisis and the periodic period in Algeria arbitration efforts in the Sahel. Finally, while the weapons used during the Libyan civil war of 2011 exacerbated the crisis in Mali from 2012 to 2013 and security in the Sahel depends on stability in North Africa, the United States should assume a more active diplomatic role. in Libya.

As the spread of political violence in West Africa enters its fifth year and Mali’s political future hangs in the balance, major powers and regional actors must address the security and security crisis. governance in the Sahel rather than pampering authoritarians in search of stability and their own narrow geostrategic objectives.

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